In any food discussion amongst the Portuguese regarding favorite dishes and traditional childhood food, it's easy to see why Portuguese food is becoming a more celebrated player in the world’s culinary scene. From the first welcomed first bite of a meal to the savoring of the last morsel of dessert, Portuguese food is as rich and complex as the Portuguese, Açorean, and Madeiran cultures that created it. And it all starts with appetizers!
But first, a word of cultural clarification. For this blog's purposes, I'll use the term "Portuguese" to cover the people of mainland Portugal, the Açores, and Madeira. However, it's important to note that the people of the autonomous regions of the Açores and Madeira are also identified as Açorean and Madeiran.
The Portuguese word for an appetizer is aperitivo or often referred to as pesticos. The practice of eating appetizers before a meal is now a common practice in Portugal, the Açores, and Madeira. Like with any other culture's appetizers, those of the Portuguese are the dishes served before the main course. They're designed to whet the appetite and set the tone for the meal. They occupy the mind and stomachs while dining guests wait for the centerpiece that will satisfy their hunger. Because the list of appetizers served at a Portuguese table is endless, I'll focus on the most popular ones, whether gracing the dining table in a restaurant or a home. To avoid any indication of favoritism, I’ve taken the liberty to rely on the good old alphabet to guide this list of the five most popular Portuguese appetizers.
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato. This is a simple dish that combines clams and a sauce made of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. There's no need to add that a liberal amount of bread accompanies this dish named after the 19th-century poet Raimundo António de Bulhão Pato. Although his verses, often lengthy, are largely forgotten, this clam appetizer is a popular choice of appetizers, especially in mainland Portugal.
Bolinhos de Bacalhau. If you’re fortunate enough to be where fresh cod (bacalhau) is found, these fritter-like appetizers are unbelievable. But if not made of cod, other types of meat can be used to create the perfect fried Portuguese appetizer. Paired with olives, bread (of course), and fruit, these are the appetizer that can also be a meal.
Bolo de Caco. From Madeira comes this gem. This rustic, leavened bread is prepared with wheat flour, mashed sweet potatoes, water, and salt. If prepared in its most traditional way, it’s baked on large basalt stone slabs. It’s typically flat and round, though it can vary in size. It is the most common bread variety on Madeira that is usually served as a warm appetizer with garlic butter spread.
Cheese. If nothing else is served as an appetizer other than cheese and bread, most diners are happy so long as the cheese is either fresh milk (queijo fresco) or Açorean. I believe that there are as many debates over the methods to use when making queijo fresco as there are about how to make a perfect cup of coffee. The tips, tricks, and secrets too numerous to mention. In some families, it's best to add "the secret to great queijo fresco" to the list of things not to discuss as people stand firmly behind their way of producing the perfect queijo fresco. But regardless of who makes it or how it arrived, queijo fresco is a great and popular Portuguese appetizer. Served with mashed pimento de terra and that bread that is everpresent, it's a beautiful meal starter. Of course, aged cheese is equally excellent, especially if it's the prized queijo de Sao Jorge or one of the newer blends that include parsley and garlic.
Morcela Com Ananas. This decadent appetizer is a traditional Portuguese one originating from the Açores. It's made with a combination of morcela black pudding, olive oil, bread, salt, pepper, garlic, and pineapple slices. The bread is cut into pieces and toasted, then drizzled with olive oil. The morcela is cut into large chunks, grilled, then seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic before it's arranged on top of the pineapple slices. The dish is traditionally served as an appetizer with toasted bread on the side.
Sausage. Whether we’re talking linguica, cacholeira branca de Portalegre, or chouriço, sausage is a typical appetizer served at the beginning of a Portuguese meal, especially with bread, of course.Time spent gathering with friends and family calls for great food, and no culture does excellent food better than the Portuguese. The appetizers listed above are just a few things traditionally served at the beginning of a Portuguese meal. The great news is this list represents only a few of the many great Portuguese appetizers served today.